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China energy use surpasses US. Who didn't see that coming?

China passed the United States as the world's No. 1 energy consumer. China denies it. But followers of China energy use are not surprised by the International Energy Agency's announcement.

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According to the IEA, China consumed the equivalent of 2.265 billion tons of oil in 2009, about 4 percent more than the 2.169 billion tons used in the United States. Xinhua says China's National Bureau of Statistics reported 2009 energy consumption equal to 2.132 billion tons of oil.

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That number, however, is almost exactly what the IEA tallied China’s energy consumption at in 2008. The IEA points out, as well, that China’s energy consumption statistics for 2009 did not match up with 2009 GDP statistics.

Beijing was also quick to deny the 2007 report from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency that found that China had surpassed the US as the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter. Such is commonly accepted now.

“Someone there is fudging data,” says Ms. Economy, author of “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future,” adding that she is inclined to trust the data from the non-partisan IEA.

Caught off guard

Beijing tightly censors Chinese media and data, and was caught off guard by the original July 18 article in The Wall Street Journal. It quoted IEA chief economist Fatih Birol saying China's ascent to No. 1 energy consumer marked "a new age in the history of energy.”

The Journal highlighted how China's energy appetite over the decade had already had major geopolitical implications and changed global politics.

"Its increasing reliance on imports has sustained higher energy prices worldwide and underpinned a natural-resource boom in Africa, the Middle East and Australia. ... Chinese oil and coal companies have been looking overseas in their quest to secure energy supplies, pitching the Chinese flag in places like Sudan, which Western companies had largely abandoned under international pressure," according to the Journal.

The IEA confirmed the news today in a statement on its web site, pointedly drawing attention to China’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

“China’s demand today would be even higher still if the government had not made such progress in reducing the energy intensity (the energy input per dollar of output) of its economy. It has also very quickly become one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy, particularly wind power and solar energy, and paved the way for a big expansion of nuclear power.”

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